A high speed rail link would boost West Midlands businesses by £2.2 billion, a new study has concluded.
But confusion continues to surround plans to improve links between the West Midlands and the rest of the country, after Rail Minister Tom Harris claimed high speed trains would damage the environment.
His comments suggested the Government has ruled out building a new rail line, even though it is officially one of the options ministers are looking at.
The Department for Transport is considering a range of possibilities including re-opening old rail lines, building extra lanes on the M6 or simply expanding the “active traffic management” scheme, which allows motorway drivers to use the hard shoulder.
The new study is to be published next week by pressure group Greengauge 21, which supports a high speed rail line. It concludes that businesses in the West Midlands would benefit by £2.2 billion from a high speed rail link to London.
But Mr Harris appeared to give away the Government’s thinking when he said the UK did not have the same need for high speed rail as other European countries.
He said: “The economic geography of the UK is very different from other countries with high speed lines. The main challenge for the UK’s transport network is congestion and reliability, not journey times and connectivity.”
The Minister also warned that high speed trains travelling faster than 125mph, the current top speed of domestic trains, were not environmentally friendly. He said: “The argument that high-speed rail travel is a ‘green option’ does not necessarily stand up to close inspection. Increasing the maximum speed of a train from 200kph (125 mph) to 350kph (217 mph) leads to a 90 per cent increase in energy consumption.”
His comments will cause dismay among those who have been urging the Government to make a quick decision about high speed rail.
Network Rail chairman Iain Coucher recently told a Commons inquiry that the West Coast Main Line would become full in “five to seven years” and it was essential to plan for a new rail line now.
The same inquiry was warned by managers from Eurostar and Virgin Trains that high speed lines were needed. Transport Secretary Ruth Kelly published a range of options for boosting transport links between London, Birmingham and Manchester last October.
They included a new high speed rail line, costing up to £30 billion and possibly giving Birmingham a direct link to Eurostar services at St Pancras, London, or re-opening a disused line, such as Great Central Main Line, which ran from London’s Marylebone Station to Manchester via Rugby in Warwickshire.
However, other options published by Ms Kelly included improving the motorway network, and there is no guarantee of any new rail lines.
The Conservatives have announced plans for a full-scale study into the feasibility of high speed rail links if they form a Government. The Liberal Democrats this week announced they were committed to building a high speed rail line from St Pancras and Heathrow to Birmingham and Manchester.
The £9 billion upgrade of the West Coast Main Line, cutting journey times between Birmingham and London by 20 minutes, is also due to be completed this year.
Engineering consultancy Atkins concluded in a report in March that high speed rail link between London and Scotland that would cut journey times from Birmingham to the capital down to an hour could help boost the national economy by £60 billion.